By Becca Heller
Expanding on last year’s Maintenance of Effort requirements mandating counties’ levels of funding for K-12 education, Montgomery County senators are seeking to establish similar requirements for county critical services throughout the state. Representatives of county governments think it’s a bad idea.
“The bill [SB1055] establishes minimum funding requirements for state grants to counties, within specific funding categories,” Sen. Roger Manno, D-Montgomery, explained in his testimony tobefore the Senate Budget & Taxation Committee on which he serves..
Funding categories covered by the bill, what Manno calls “critical services,” include: corrections; fire protection, rescue, and ambulance services; law enforcement, including sheriffs and deputy sheriffs; public libraries; and transportation.
Counties don’t want to relinquish budget authority
County leaders are concerned about the breadth of this definition and are hesitant to relinquish so much financial authority to the state.
“You take this much of the county budget off the table for meaningful adjustment and you’ve taken accountability out of the process,” said Michael Sanderson, executive director of the Maryland Association of Counties (MACo). “Elected officials are not just members of a club. They’ve been elected by citizens and taxpayers to make decisions about these priorities.”
The bill introduces a new, streamlined method of procuring state waivers from maintenance of efforts requirements.
“Our intent was to make it a far easier waiver process,” said Sen. Richard Madaleno, another Montgomery County Democrat co-sponsoring the bill. “What we were trying to do was say: the old waiver system wasn’t working, here’s a new waiver system. It’s broader with different categories. But what I want know is why isn’t someone testing it. Because all we hear is ‘Oh it’s horrific.’ But why isn’t anyone using it?”
Still broad dissatisfaction with maintenance of effort
MACo and other county representatives reject the maintenance of effort system altogether, and are still very dissatisfied with the existing MOE requirements for education.
“I completely understand and can sympathize with the argument behind the bill. I think the bottom line from MACo’s perspective is diagnosis right, solution, probably wrong,” said Sanderson. “Two wrongs don’t make a right.”
Bruce Bereano, a lobbyist representing the Maryland Rural County Coalition, also expressed concern that the bill would rob counties of their ability to make decisions specific to each region’s constituents.
“Every county is different, that’s the beauty and magnificence of this state,” said Bereano. “What may be a concern in one county may not be a concern in another.”
Aim is to keep county finances stable
Supporters of this bill assert that the process mimics federal and state relations on a smaller scale, and say that its ultimate aim is to enhance financial stability and ensure fair distribution of funds.
“The intent of the legislation is to advance funding predictability and accountability of state funds in which there exists a local match – as is required under federal funding to states,” Manno testified.
Opposition to the bill is likely to remain, however, as the bill threatens to further undermine county sovereignty and dictate fiscal policy.
“It really weakens dramatically the fabric, and the collaboration, and the interplay in a normal healthy process between county government and state government,” said Bereano. “It takes away all flexibility and creates a rigidity.”